“Blood Clots and Black Holes”
story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb
Content Warning: MILD GORE
Jules stirred at the sound of a whispered, “Honey, wake up,” and found Healer Wade—Prefect Weyland’s husband—hovering over him with a solicitous look in his big brown eyes.
He blinked, glanced around, wondered what he was doing on the floor slumped forward onto the edge of a Medicinal Magic cot.
The answer came as he glimpsed Rory in the bed asleep, a panchrest poultice stretched over the hollow that had been his shoulder. He was still clenching Jules’s hand pretty tightly, considering he was unconscious. When he’d still been awake, before the cocktail of pain elixirs had kicked in, Jules had thought his old friend’s grip might literally break his hand.
You’re okay, Jules remembered babbling, over the sound of Rory’s hissing and bleating while the mediciners cleaned his wound; while slowly, painstakingly, they scraped away the pieces of his t-shirt that had melted to his flesh. Keep your eyes on me. I’ve got you. Just breathe.
Rory looked almost peaceful now, though a little knot in his brow signaled he was still in pain. Brimstone burns were notoriously cruel. Jules didn’t know how to begin to deal with the fact that he himself, however indirectly, had been responsible for Rory experiencing one. He certainly wasn’t going to let himself think about the how he’d possibly killed, at minimum horrifically mangled another human being by the same brutal means.
Jules worked his hand free of Rory’s, gripped his cane as it was pressed into his palm, and moved with shuffling steps as Healer Wade led him to a nearby exam area. He had no idea when or how he’d passed out, but he couldn’t have been asleep for long. His mana reserves still felt drained, his body like it was running on exhaust.
“Dare I ask what on God’s green Earth happened to you two?” said DeShay, as he tended Jules’s battered face.
“Martial Magus business,” mumbled Jules. He felt like a child, the way his legs dangled off the tall exam table.
“Is that other boy a Martial Magus?” asked DeShay, pointedly.
“No.” Jules felt a stab of guilt. “I’m…supposed to be keeping him out of trouble.”
The healer, mercifully, didn’t comment. He did raise one long eyebrow, which seemed like statement enough. “So.” He held Jules’s face still as he sewed up the split on his cheek with aether thread. “You’re saying Devisha knows all about whatever you were up to tonight?”
Jules eyed him, careful not to move his face too much when he spoke. “Once again, Healer, with due respect, it was Martial Magus business. I’m under no obligation to discuss it with a civilian, even if that civilian happens to be the Master-General’s cousin. And I’ll remind you of your confidentiality obligations as a medicinal professional in the employ of the Auctoritas Magicae. Ow!” This last came as the needle seemed to jab him especially hard.
“I’m well aware of my confidentiality obligations as an employee of this department, never you fear,” purred DeShay. “I’m also plenty accustomed to being told to mind my own business, by both my husband and my cousin. Council business, elder business, Enforcement business; it’s all so far above the heads of us little people.” He shrugged as he tied off the stitches. “Never stops me from asking, ’cause I’m a nosy bitch.”
In spite of everything, a smile tugged Jules’s lips.
The healer was probably right, he considered, as the rest of his treatment proceeded mostly in silence. He’d hoped the business with Max’s attackers would be resolved quickly and without any need for intervention from his Enforcement colleagues. But after last night’s clusterfuck, Jules wasn’t feeling so confident in his ability to take down a coven of murderous apostates on his own—at least not without endangering innocent lives. Whether General Wade could spare the resources to aid him was a question all its own. But it at least behooved him to ask.
Before more people like Ollie died. And more people like Rory got hurt.
I’ll visit the Grand Archivist first, soon as I’ve recharged a bit. Try to get a better feel for what we’re dealing with before I make my case to the Master-General.
Jules teetered on the brink of unconsciousness as DeShay finished patching up his face. The healer provided him a clean gown and the men’s showers all to himself to wash up, then installed him in the bed next to Rory’s for some much-needed rest.
Jules managed to get out a request that some clothes be brought over for himself and Rory from the Alfheim Room 808, and that someone inform Master-Savant Winter that he would be late to work today, before he pitched headfirst into a dreamless sleep.
The world-famous Archives of the Enclave at Delphi reminded Jules a lot of the mole tunnels—a gnarled labyrinth of throughways, dark, poorly lit, possessing a distinctive odor. In the Alchemy department, that odor was of chemicals and stale smoke. Here, it was of decaying parchments and leather, with the faintest tinge of mold. Too, instead of low ceilings and singed, sconce-lit walls, the narrow pathways of the Archives were hemmed in by shelf after shelf of books, extending as far up as the eye could see. Tomes were double-stacked on the racks, with random piles here and there on the floor. Each collection, on inspection, was meticulously organized and labeled, but it all looked impossibly haphazard at first glance.
Jules had slept like a rock till mid-afternoon, at which point he’d decided today’s workday was a bust, made arrangements to meet with the Grand Archivist, gotten himself dressed, and come straight over. When he’d set out from Medicinal Magic, Rory had been asleep still, and his shoulder, with the help of panchrest, had begun to take on something resembling the shape of a human shoulder again. Jules’s own injuries, being minor, had pretty well healed, though his face still bore a lone pink scar and a couple of faint yellow bruises. He was already brainstorming ways to deflect the inevitable questions these were sure to elicit from Dad at their campaign meeting later that afternoon.
Jules paused at a cross-paths to study a rickety signpost that pointed the way to different areas of the Archives. The classified section, it appeared, was somewhere off to his left.
After a few more twists and turns, he came to a little clearing decorated with a faded oriental rug and a motley assemblage of Queen Anne chairs. At the far end of this open area stood a nondescript door, and in the chair closest to the door sat Grand Archivist Draven Loris-Beckett. Loris-Beckett was a tall, broad-shouldered woman in her late fifties, with close-cropped silver hair and a hard, square face. She wore full Arcanus robes open over a double-breasted pantsuit and cradled an open book in her arm, her half-rimless bifocals perched low on her round-tipped nose.
As Jules approached, she looked up at him over her glasses with hard, pale eyes. “Grand Philosopher.” She clamped her book shut with one broad hand, checked the pocket watch on her breast. “You’re two minutes late.”
Jules blanched. “Apologies, Grand Archivist. I’m usually very punctual. I got a little turned around finding my way here.”
“No matter. Take a seat.”
Jules lowered himself into the high-backed chair opposite her, hooked his cane over its arm.
“How are you liking Evander’s old office?” The Archivist’s expression was flat, uncharitable, her gaze hawkish. She seemed unaccustomed to making smalltalk. Jules wondered why she was bothering.
“It’s…nice,” he ventured, getting the sense there might somehow be a right or wrong answer.
“Redecorated much, have you?”
“Um, no. I don’t think I will.”
“I…happen to like what he did with it.”
“You do, do you.”
Jules shifted uncomfortably. “Yes. I’ve enjoyed getting to explore his workspace and library, seeing where he may have derived his inspiration. He seems to have been quite the renaissance man.”
“You appear to respect that about him.”
Jules started to wonder if this was some kind of vetting. If so, he had no idea what the Archivist hoped to learn or why, so he simply continued to answer honestly. “Because great innovators never limit their interests to a single field.”
Jules felt a little spike of irritation. As a Martial Magus, he was both entitled to the Grand Archivist’s assistance and guaranteed access even to the Archives’ restricted texts. He wasn’t supposed to have to jump through hoops. “Even the most seemingly-disparate realms of knowledge are connected and inform one another. It takes an interdisciplinary perspective to generate truly original solutions.”
“Did your father teach you that?”
“God, no.” Jules barely held back a laugh.
“Then where did you learn it?”
“Well…it’s self-evident. Isn’t it? I mean, obviously not to everyone. Not to my father. But I would think it would be obvious to you, of all people, Grand Archivist, considering your choice of profession.” Jules hesitated. “With all due respect.”
Grand Archivist Loris-Beckett folded her weathered hands on the arm of her chair. “Then you judge that all knowledge, all information, all perspectives are valuable.” She paused significantly. “Even the misguided ones.”
“Yes,” said Jules, without hesitation.
Loris-Beckett raised an eyebrow, seemingly to prompt elaboration.
“If one approaches every new perspective with proper skepticism—” Jules indulged her, “which one should, as a matter of course—then even the most egregious lie will serve only to shed further light on the truth.”
“Then, in your estimation, there is no such thing as dangerous knowledge.”
Jules thought he might be starting to see what she was getting at. “Many useful things are dangerous in the hands of people who are ill-intentioned or incompetent.” He looked her in the eyes. “I’m neither one of those things.”
Crow’s feet split the Grand Archivist’s cheeks. She rose to her full impressive height, moved to stand before the nondescript door.
As Jules watched, she drew an athame from a scabbard on her hip and brandished it fiercely, barking words of command in Enochian. The air darkened, and a guttural shriek rent the air. A blast of light and a whoosh of wind exploded outward from the edges of the door, and a dimly glowing circle appeared on its surface.
The Archivist sheathed her athame and, with her fingertips, traced the runes within the circle in a specific rapid sequence, muttering feverishly, till the door clicked open and whined inward of its own accord.
Jules wondered with a shudder if Loris-Beckett herself had bound the daemon that guarded this door. With a commanding presence like hers, no doubt she could have been a master goetian.
“Come,” she beckoned, proceeding within.
Jules obeyed, startling as the door slammed shut almost indignantly behind him.
“This would be your first visit to the classified section of the Archives, would it not, Philosopher?” said the Grand Archivist, in her crisp English accent.
“Yes.” Jules resisted a strange compulsion to attach a ma’am to his reply.
“You made mention in your message,” Loris-Beckett went on, without looking back at him, “of a dimension in which prima materia does not exist.”
This part of the Archives was tighter but more neatly arranged than the main part, and everything here was covered in a thicker, more even layer of dust. Instead of on aging wooden shelves, the tomes and scrolls of the classified section dwelled in locked iron cages.
“Why might you be interested in such a thing?” Loris-Beckett spared Jules a cock-browed glance over her shoulder.
It wasn’t her place to ask him something like that. But Jules decided the more information he gave her the more she might be able to help him. “I may have encountered one, in the course of an investigation into some apostate activity in Chicago.”
Loris-Beckett came to a sudden standstill, leveled a sharp look at him. “Is that so?”
Jules, a bit unnerved by her scrutiny, nodded. “I have a young mundane woman in my care who was injured in an apostate ritual. Her wound, according to my analysis, may be a portal accessing such a dimension.”
“Have you mentioned this to the Master-General?”
“Not yet. I thought first I’d try to—”
“Good,” the Archivist cut him off. “Don’t.”
Jules frowned. “Don’t…?”
“Not yet,” Loris-Beckett added, then started forward again at a more determined pace.
Jules stood staring after her. He’d heard the Grand Archivist was an iconoclast, but her counseling him within minutes of their first meeting to shut Master-General Wade out of a criminal investigation was a thing he never would have anticipated.
It took him a few seconds to work up the nerve to ask her, “Why not?”
She didn’t answer; mounted a ladder positioned ahead, whispered a spell to a gate that closed off an upper shelf. The gate’s intricate wrought-iron lock eased apart, sinuously, and it swung open with a metallic groan.
Another brief chant and a tracing of invisible runes on the cage’s edge, and the neat row of book spines that appeared to occupy the shelf dissolved with a shimmer.
In place of this advanced glamor sat a massive, fraying leather codex with the ankh embossed on its spine.
“Don’t bother telling anyone this was here,” Loris-Beckett advised, as she descended the ladder with the huge book in tow. “It won’t be the next time someone enters this place.”
“Who else knows about it?”
“Only myself. A couple of my trusted confidants. And now you. And if you go talking about it to anyone else around here, there’s a very good chance they’ll tell you you’ve lost your mind.”
The Grand Archivist lugged the book over to a small table, heaved it onto the unfinished wood surface. A small cloud of dust rose up from the impact.
Jules warily joined her as she murmured a short incantation, which caused the convoluted lock that bound the text to give way with a series of whirrs and clicks.
Gingerly, the Archivist lifted aside the decaying cover, revealing a title page scribed in Ancient Greek.
“‘The Complete Hermetica,’” Jules translated out loud. “‘Annotated writings of Hermes Trismegistus.’ This is nothing special. Every magus in the Western world knows this book.”
“Took Ancient Greek as your language concentration, did you?”
“No,” said Jules, a bit sheepishly. “My linguistic concentrations were Old Aramaic and Enochian.”
The Archivist’s cheeks split in a long-toothed grin. “You’re a Nimri after all. How’s the daemon language coming in handy for you?”
“Not at all, I’m afraid.”
Loris-Beckett chuckled broadly. “If you’d like a historian’s view, it’s been a good long while since your house produced a magus of vision. You were wise to break with tradition. As daemonologers, the Nimris have lost their touch.”
Jules wasn’t sure whether to take this as a compliment, so all he did was shrug and give a vague nod.
“You are, of course, correct,” Loris-Beckett went on. “This is the ubiquitous Corpus Hermeticum. It is, in fact, the oldest extant copy. I’ve dated it to the third century anno Domini.”
Jules continued to nod absently, then did a double take. “The thirdcentury? The oldest complete works of Hermes is dated to the eighth.”
“The oldest known edition.” Loris-Beckett arched one furry eyebrow.
Jules frowned. “Why’s this one been kept a secret?”
“Because if its existence came to light, the Tribunal might very well order it destroyed.”
The Archivist leafed gently through the book’s crumbling pages. “You’re familiar with much of this, I’m sure. No doubt studied it ad nauseam in school.” She closed the codex, stirring up a fresh puff of dust, then overturned it with a grunt and rotated it upside-down. “But this, I’ll wager, is something new.” She uttered a strange, glottally punctuated whine, something from none of the many ancient languages Jules had studied in school, and again lifted aside the book’s cover, revealing an entirely different title page.
“‘The Book of Cipher’?” Jules again translated out loud.
“Correct.” The Grand Archivist leafed ahead. An image of a black vortex stretched long arms across the following page. “Before our world came into being, the Book of Cipher claims, there was another. A realm of darkness and void. It is said to linger on, a mere step out of phase with our own. Because we are creatures of the material realm, our senses were not made to detect it. Yet, in some intangible way, we perceive it—in the cracks between things. In lack and in loss. Beyond the boundaries of forms.”
Jules stared at the vortex, feeling like he had, in fact, gazed into it before. “Why has this knowledge been kept secret?”
“Because,” said Loris-Beckett, “the Nihility, as it’s called, gave rise to this world; and, theoretically, the Nihility can end it. Seeks to, in fact, with a conscious or unconscious will. It hungers to devour this plane, and it moves the magic users of this world through intangible means to aid in its cause. Those who harness the fullness of its potential may wield unmatched powers of destruction.”
Jules found himself shaking his head.
“You’re skeptical,” Loris-Beckett observed.
“I just don’t understand how something like this could exist—a whole other root and realm of magic no one knows anything about. How is a cover-up of that magnitude even possible?”
“When the Auctoritas Magicae consolidated power in the Western magic world, they carried out a systematic elimination of all forms of apostasy as defined by the Delphi Accords. Magi in defiance of the new laws were killed or tranquilized. Many sources of arcane knowledge now deemed apostate were destroyed. After the Siege of the Scholomance in 1851 A.D., all known texts referencing the Nihility were ritually burned, and practitioners of Nihilic magics were put to the torch as well. Even tranquilization was deemed insufficient to ensure the total obliteration of the dangerous knowledge they possessed.
“Since that time,” the Archivist went on, “it’s been forbidden by law even to speak of the Nihility. Within a few short generations, all knowledge of and historical reference to Nihilic practice was erased—until the discovery of this ancient text just decades ago, as well as a smattering of primary sources that have come into my possession over the years detailing the events I’ve described.”
“So this ‘Nihilic’ magic was taught at the Scholomance?” The razing of the infamous apostate school was a celebrated event in Auctoritas Magicae history.
“On that, all the aforementioned primary sources agree.”
Jules let this sink in. “But if it’s true that these apostates are dabbling in such dangerous magic, the Master-General needs to be told.”
“She’s unlikely to believe you.”
“Then we should show her this.” Jules waved at the text.
“If she did happen to recognize the significance of it, she’d be obligated by law to destroy it.”
“That’s absurd. We need this to understand what we’re fighting. She’ll understand that. She’s not stupid.”
“Never underestimate Devisha Wade’s devotion to the letter of the law,” drawled the Archivist. “The woman suffers from a criminal—if you’ll forgive my ironic phrasing—lack of imagination.”
“But if I talk to the Prefect, the Archmagus, my father, they’ll all surely see the necessity of overturning that law, under the circumstances.”
“You would need to prove your case not just to those three individuals, but to a two-thirds majority of the Auctoritas Magicae. And even when all goes smoothly, the process of changing the law takes time. Meanwhile, the statute would remain in effect and would likely continue to be enforced by those parties publicly sworn to uphold it.”
“I am one of those parties.” Jules raked a hand through his hair. “What’s the alternative? I keep taking this on by myself? With any luck it’s just a small coven of dabblers and can be dealt with easily. But if this Nihilic magic really does have such destructive potential, it has to be nipped in the bud before it gets out of control. Which means I really ought to take whatever help I can get.”
“If—and again, this is a considerable if—Devisha recognizes the significance of what’s happening, you will not be receiving any help from her.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll be taken off the case altogether. You’re a ‘rookie,’ to borrow her pet term. I’m surprised she’s trusted you to helm an investigation of your own in the first place.”
“She…hasn’t,” said Jules, a bit guiltily. “I stumbled onto this one through a friend. Or—well, not a friend exactly. Somebody I know.”
“Case in point. If you bring this case to the Master-General’s attention, she’ll reassign it. Perhaps take the lead on it herself. Either way, it’s doubtful she’ll involve you, given your lack of experience. And she won’t approach the matter with an open mind, as you would. She’ll apply a sledgehammer where a chisel is called for.”
“I’d be crazy to try to do this on my own,” Jules protested, but he was feeling increasingly unsure. “I’m arrogant, Grand Archivist, but I’m not that arrogant. I know I’m not equipped to take on something this big without help.”
“You underestimate yourself.” Loris-Beckett eyed him. “Haven’t you given any thought to the girl?”
“The young mundane woman. The one afflicted with the rift.”
“Max,” Jules murmured. “What about her?”
“You really think if the Master-General finds out about her, she’ll be willing to leave her in your care?”
“I’m sure the Master-General will understand, given my particular abilities, that I’m the best person to take care of Max.”
“I wouldn’t assume helping the girl will be Devisha’s first priority.”
Jules felt a stab of worry. “What do you mean?”
“Your Max will be considered evidence, and she’ll be treated as such. Enforcement will be far more interested in her significance to their investigation than in either making her comfortable or caring for her injury. You know as well as I do, Grand Philosopher, that most of our fellow magi are not in the habit of affording mundanes an abundance of consideration.”
Jules thought about the way the mediciners had tossed Max in quarantine and all but forgotten her.
Like hell is that happening again.
“Why are you so set on persuading me?” he demanded suddenly, looking Loris-Beckett in the eye.
“Because.” She matched his gaze. “I’m rooting for this investigation to succeed. If it’s truly a nest of Nihilites you’ve stumbled onto, then it’s imperative they be brought down. But no way in hell am I turning over to Enforcement this or any other forbidden texts from my collection, given that they will likely only end up in the fire. You, Grand Philosopher, are a thinker first and foremost, like your predecessor before you. You, I judge, have the capacity to see reason. You, therefore, I will aid in this endeavor. But anyone else who comes in here demanding access to my secret collection will learn that I excel at obstruction.”
Jules stared at the image of the vortex on the decrepit page in front of him and felt as if it were swirling, drawing him in.
“Do you mind if I stay here and study this a while?” he said at last, indicating the book.
“By all means.” The Archivist rose from her chair. “If you require consultation, I’ll be nearby.”
Jules left the Archives a few hours later with a throbbing in his skull and a sense that something in every shadow he passed was hostile to him—like a sentient sickness, suffering, seething with hate. The Book of Cipher, not unexpectedly, had been strange, littered with cryptic phrases like, The poison was in the seed—which for some reason seemed familiar—and, The Hell-born cry for peace. An ink-drawn vortex had writhed in the middle of each two-page spread, right at the place where the pages joined, and the text on either side of it had been rendered in such a way that it seemed to ooze, in slow motion, toward the solid blackness at the center. As Jules had paged through the tome, the vortex image had seemed to grow, overtaking more and more of the page. On turning the final leaf, he’d found himself staring into unbroken blackness.
He was shivering now as he stumped through the Enclave’s halls. A time or two he paused to stand in the dappled sunlight that poured through the stained-glass windows, letting its warmth soak into his skin. He wondered if Max felt this same chill, this wrongness, this sickness in herself all the time.
Thinking of Max brought to mind the decision that lay before Jules—whether to approach the Master-General with his findings or continue to go it alone. He’d been so sure of his planned course of action that morning, but the Grand Archivist’s words had given him more than a little cause to doubt—especially the part about him potentially being denied access to Max. The cure to what ailed her could only be divined through advanced alchemy, Jules was sure of it. Him not being allowed to study her could equal her death sentence.
He pulled up short, hearing the murmuring of a restless crowd somewhere up ahead—seemingly around the next bend, near the entrance to Enforcement headquarters.
Jules frowned to himself and, after a beat, continued forward into the cross-halls.
The throng of dozens included magi of all colors, though predominantly Arcanus’s purple and gold—a pretty representative sampling of the Enclave’s population on any given day. As Jules watched, they all seemed to quiet down and turn their attention toward something happening in the next hallway down.
Seconds later, they erupted in a din of angry shouts.
Jules stumped toward the fracas, craning his neck for a glimpse of whatever they were reacting to.
A ripple ran through the crowd as people fell back suddenly, some so hurriedly they smacked into others. It soon became clear why they were scrambling over each other—to clear the path of the tight formation of Ordinators that was forcing its way through, swords drawn. A few small scuffles broke out.
“His head!” one woman screamed. “I want his fucking head!”
“Give me back my daughter, you trash!” a man howled.
“Was it Khmun?!” shouted another. “Tell us who you were working for, slime!”
Jules’s heart skipped a beat. “They made an arrest?” he asked one of the few calm people he could find, a young woman hovering near the edge of the throng. “For the May 14th attack?”
The magus, a Hekate Aristokratian veiled in black, answered him with a tranquil nod. Jules knew, courtesy of his mother, that her sect cultivated stoicism in the face of death and tragedy.
“Who was it?” He was having to shout to be heard above the uproar.
“Associate Duncan Harper of Ordo Arcanus,” she replied, in a loud but placid voice, tinged with a Greek accent, which further brought to mind Jules’s mother. “Assistant to the Grand Enchanter.”
“Of course,” breathed Jules. “He would’ve had easy access to the golem.” He caught a glimpse of a frightened-looking young man, probably not much older than himself, chained hand and foot and huddling behind the wall of Ordinators, who were brandishing their blades to keep the mob at bay. “Anything yet about a motive? Accomplices?”
The woman shook her veiled head.
Someone hurled something at the suspect. It looked like a wallet. An Ordinator was quick to step out of line and clap the offender in handcuffs.
Jules took in the scene a moment or two longer, then decided he’d had enough.
Sick. Everything about this is sick.
“Well, Rory.” He smiled grimly as he turned away. “Guessing this means you’re off the hook.”